How to Thrive and Advance in a Male-Dominated Workplace

From day one, male babies are dressed and swaddled in blue, females in pink.  Boys play with trucks and like to wrestle, girls play with dolls and learn proper manners.  Young men play to win on sports teams, young women do things in groups where everyone tries to get along.  Yes, there are exceptions to these generalities like girls who play sports, or young men who focus on academics or the arts.  Even in these scenarios, there are learned behaviors that carry through to adulthood and the workplace that shape the way males and females interact; and it can be confusing, because they are vastly different.

If you work in a male-dominated setting, you must understand the environment in order to thrive in it.  Similar to adapting to a new culture in a different country, or learning a new language, we have to understand the world around us before we can fully engage and participate.  This is not to say that after a year of living in France (for example), or learning their language, that we become French!  However; we would learn how to get along with and interact with the French better than if you held onto your American ways.  Similarly, if you work in a male-dominated company, and that is still the construct of most American workplaces, to learn the customs, manners and speech that goes with the culture will not only help you be a part of it, but even lead within it.  If your hard work is going unnoticed or unrewarded, if you are frustrated because your voice or ideas are not heard, or worse, if you find yourself complaining about your situation, it’s time to learn some strategies and get in the game.  It’s not about relinquishing yourself or your feminine side, rather, it’s about using what you have and what you know to successfully survive, strive and thrive.

It is important to remember that, just like the French were the first people in France, men and the male culture of the workplace have been in business for centuries. Globally.  It surprises me sometimes that women are miffed or incredulous that we haven’t changed this culture in the last 50 years, when the rules and behaviors of men in business date back to the days of barter and trade, and when you had to sometimes fight and even kill to survive.  Think about history.  Shifts in civilizations and cultures take centuries if not millenniums before change occurs.  If we are to succeed in a male-dominant culture (workplace), we need to shift our efforts from changing it, to improving our circumstance within it.  Indeed, the optimal outcome is that equality in the workplace prevails, but for now, we need to focus on this point in time and our place within the grand shift.   If we pursue success with this mindset, rather than the thought that we aren’t being granted a fair shake, we will get a lot farther a lot more quickly.  The three keys to success lie within adapting these styles to survive, strive and thrive within the world around you:

  • Communication
  • Behavior
  • Leadership

Communication Approach

Imagine you are in a business meeting in Paris.  Speaking in English will not get your point across (I know many are bilingual, but stay with the example).  Of course you are frustrated because English is all you know.  Similar to speaking to someone hard of hearing, perhaps you shout in English to get your point across.  This accomplishes not your goal, but instead succeeds in irritating those around you, and worse, their disdain or disregard for you.  In essence, you are a nuisance, even if you have a meaningful or even life-saving point to make.  You’ll never get your point across with this approach.  What do you do?  Learn French and try again.

At this point, I know you’re wondering ‘what is the language of men in business, the language that they hear, understand and respond to?’  Well, it’s not so much a language, as it is a communication style.  Whereas women are masters of rapport building, men want to get straight to the point.  Women are congenial conversationalists, men report and declare information and ideas.  Generally, women speak in turn, whereas research has shown that men interrupt and dominate the floor.  Tone and intonation matter also matter.  In your business communication, stick to facts, steer away from feelings.  Keep on topic, and by all means avoid drama at all costs.  You might be cringing at this point, thinking back to certain communications gone bad.  You can change and move forward.  It is possible.  Communicate as if you are on a mission, with a limited amount of time to accomplish a very important task, and that it’s imperative that everyone understand your vision.  Because, in fact, you are.  Your mission is that of staking your professional ground and advancement.

Communication – Survival Strategies:

  • Avoid chit chat and rapport building.
  • Get straight to the point and stick to it.
  • Declare your points versus posing them as questions or ideas for pondering.
  • Avoid your high-pitch voice, and drama.  Communicate with a strong even tone that exudes confidence.

Behavior Modification

Using France as an example again, the culture has a certain set of values and etiquette that apply in all situations.  To immerse into the culture, you must strive to understand your environment, and adapt in order to be a part of it.  It’s not about abandoning who you are, or changing your ways completely.  It’s about gaining knowledge of how things work in the world around you, making adjustments to become a part of it, and ultimately effectively contribute to its betterment.  The goal is to change how you are perceived and understood, so that you will assimilate into and be accepted into the culture.

In this case, adapting to your environment means being a team player, but according to the male definition of ‘team’.  From a young age, boys learn that to be a team player you must sacrifice for the good of the team, sometimes break the rules, and not take things personally.  You don’t necessarily like all the players on the team, but get along with them anyway because they allhave the same goal, which is to win with an organized strategy.  These learned behaviors are engrained and come into play again in the business world.  Conversely, from girlhood, females like to be friends with everyone on the team, make sure the outcome is best for everyone involved, and work to support the team by following the rules.  These concepts are at odds with each other.  If you find yourself in a male-dominant business team as a minority, it’s necessary to play by their accepted rules – whether or not you agree with or like them.

Following on the communication style differences, relationships men have with co-workers is quite different than those of women.  For starters, and in most cases, discussion of interpersonal topics are not for the office.  When someone (male or female) is friendly at a given point in time, it doesn’t mean they are your friend.  You can get along well in a meeting, or on a team, but understand that it doesn’t mean you now have a buddy, or that someone that has your back.  You have to have your own back.  Period.  Know your boundaries and act accordingly.  These rules are not true for every office, or every company, but if you’re reading this and experiencing an ‘ah ha’ moment, it is probably true for your office, and you are now aware of it.

Behavior – Strive Strategies

  • Get to know and understand the rules in your office.
  • Play by the rules, and understand you might lose a ‘friend’ in the process.
  • Get along with everyone, even if it hurts.
  • Fair is not always in the playbook.  Realize this, and accept it, but not to the point of compromising integrity.
  • Make frequent, meaningful contributions to the team, always with the end-goal in mind.

Leadership Style

There is no one or right way to lead, but there is a wrong way, which is trying to reach unanimous consensus among the team, or worse, sharing an idea and asking everyone’s opinion before making a move.  Some women try to apply their social rules of female relationships when in a leadership role; play nice, get along, everybody’s happy.  That’s doesn’t work in the office.  Not everyone is, nor can they be, on equal ground.  As a leader, it is inevitable that some decisions you make won’t be popular or liked by some members of your team.  How you react could be the linchpin in gaining the respect of your team.  If you have a high need to be liked by all, or want to assuage any and all dissonance within your team, it will be your downfall.  In sum, you will lose the respect of your team.

Many men, especially those who played team sports, inherently understand and operate this way by default.  They lead with their head.  Heart rarely plays a role at the office.  This is not to say that men are insensitive, it’s just that they are conditioned to compartmentalize emotions in the decision making process.  The higher up you go, or want to go, this type of strategic decision and action tends to get more intense.

Leadership – Thrive Strategies

  • Review the facts, formulate a strategy or decision, and be direct with your delivery.
  • Don’t agonize, assuage or apologize.
  • Stick to your guns. Backtracking is perceived as being weak or inconsistent.
  • Accept some dissension as normal and move on.  Eventually employees will too.
  • Understand that people want a leader to lead and coach.  Act accordingly.

These male-focused strategies of communication, behavior and leadership may seem cold and without regard to relationships.  Cultivation of relationships as a team player, or leader is a fundamentally important part of team building.  This observation may seem to fly in the face of the strategies I’ve outlined, but let me assure you, it does not.  Acting as the Lone Ranger won’t get you very far.  Workplace relationship cultivation has the goals and objectives of the business or organization are at the heart.  In a friendship outside of work, seeing a movie, shopping or chatting over coffee is appropriate.  At work, activities and behaviors that strengthen and further both the individual and the company are the core activities that cultivate relationships.  Examples include mentoring a younger employee, picking up a project for someone in dire need of help (not chronic need), showing up to all meetings (even the boring ones), or recognizing someone’s contributions or praising their work in front of a group.  These actions will gain the respect of your co-workers, set an example for others to follow, and in most cases, benefit you in some way.

Adapting your communication, behavior and leadership style, using the methods outlined within will help you survive, strive and thrive not only in a male-dominated culture, they will take you far in an all-female, or equally mixed environment as well.  I liken these methods to the environment one would expect in a higher-education classroom setting;

  • Direct, no nonsense, fact-driven, communication.
  • Appropriate, calm and participatory behavior.
  • Principle-based, direct and unwavering leadership

Has any of this advice struck a chord with you?  Did you find yourself identifying or struggling with some of these areas in your work life?  I’ve coached hundreds of women through challenging situations, freeing them of encumbered beliefs or behaviors, setting them on a path to success.  I can help you too.  Please contact me for an initial consultation to explore the possibilities of working together.

©Copyright 2015.  Kay Fittes.  All Rights Reserved.

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